THE Spanish spent a quarter of a century after 1492 in trying to dodge the bothersome lands that had blocked Columbus' way to the Indies. Until Balboa had marched across the Central American Isthmus to the Pacific and Magellan had sailed around the bottom of South America, the bewildered mind of the Old World did not take in the stupendous fact that a wholly new world had been discovered.
Instantly that strange hemisphere became the theater of some of the boldest, most romantic adventures in history. The age of chivalry had not yet been laughed to death in Spain by Cervantes, and most valiantly did the Spanish knights tilt at windmills all over America. What is now the United States was first explored, from ocean to ocean, by mean as mad as ever chased a will-o'-the-wisp. In their fools' errands they were urged on by the Indians, who solemnly filled the credulous heads of those earliest tenderfoots with all manner of wild fancies; of Amazons and giants and of a lost tribe of white men; of another tribe that went on one leg, and of another who had long, flexible tails and had to bore holes in seats before they could sit down.
The children of the forest may not always have been as childlike as they seemed to the childlike Spaniards. The red man had the extravagant sense of humor that is racy of the American soil. He liked his little joke and delighted to draw a long bow, all the more so if it would only send the intruders plunging on into the wilderness.
One of two major follies lured most of those brave but deluded men who were the earliest Europeans to tread this ground of ours since the Norsemen came and went—a water passage through the continent to the Pacific . . . or a pot of gold at the rainbow's end. True, the first of that galaxy of Don Quixotes to land on these shores, Don Juan Ponce de Leon, came in quest of something even more to be desired than riches: a fountain of youth. Chancing to sight the land of his dreams on Pascua de Flores (flowery Easter), Ponce called it Florida, and beached his boat near the present site of St Augustine.
Incidentally, Ponce was authorized by a royal patent to enslave the heathen. Apparently these were forewarned by their experience with some earlier, unrecorded slave raids, and they gave their guests a hot welcome. Although the Spanish came in full armor, with their crossbows and guns that spit flames, they were beaten off by the naked Floridans. Again they came, and again they were repelled by a storm of arrows, one of them piercing the shining steel corset of Ponce de Leon himself, who found death where he sought eternal youth.
The Spanish turned northward in their effort to explore and occupy this country. A colony of 600 persons, with 100 horses, was settled in Virginia, and possibly at Jamestown. Between mutinies and insurrections among themselves, the assaults of their Indian neighbors, and the wasting fevers of an unfamiliar climate, two-thirds of those colonists quickly perished, and only 150 escaped.
Panfilo de Narvaez next renewed the attempt to conquer the Florida peninsula. As the Spanish came with 400 men and 80 horses, the Indians could not prevent their landing, probably on the shores of Tampa Bay. But they got rid of the invaders by sending them off on a wild goose chase after gold in Georgia.
When the sadder and wiser gold-hunters tried to return they lost their way and could not find their ships. Stranded on a desolate shore of the of the Gulf of Mexico, without tools or training for ship building, they made a bellows with deer skin, improvised a forge and beat their stirrups and spurs into spikes for the construction of new boats. Caulking the seams with palmetto fibers, they sewed together their shirts and other garments into sails. The rigging they made with the manes, tails and hides of the horses that they killed for food.
With nearly 50 men loading down almost to the gunwales each of the five painfully built craft, the crazy flotilla started for Mexico. Only one of the vessels ever was heard of more. And only four of its passengers lived to tell the tale . . . and what a tale!
The treasurer of the Narvaez expedition, a nobleman, Cabeza de Vaca, and two other white men and a negro slave were cast away on a Louisiana island and enslaved by an Indian tribe. Escaping to another tribe, they were welcomed as holy men come down from Heaven. Upon being implored to heal the sick, they recited the Paternoster and Ave Maria and made the sign of the cross. Thereat the sufferers arose and were free from pain, so powerful was the faith of the red patients.
The wonder-working medicine men still were none the less slaves. The Indians would not think of letting such miraculous beings depart and move on toward Mexico, where they would be among their own people once more. While the unwilling guests watched for a chance to slip out of their gilded chains, a deadly epidemic smote their hosts. The terrified tribe regarded the visitation as a punishment for having detained these divinities, and Cabeza and his companions were permitted to go their way.
Onward toward the setting sun the four estrays went in safety, thanks to the all-conquering sign of the cross. When they came to the shores of the Pacific in Mexico, they were gladdened by the sight of a necklace on an Indian. It was adorned by a buckle from a sword belt and a nail from a horseshoe! Soon they had less pleasant evidence of their nearness to their own civilization. They saw Indians running and hiding interior at their approach. The first Spaniard they met was a slave raider, engaged in hunting down the red men who had received them as gods, because their faces were white.
The continent had been crossed for the first time by four unarmed, naked men. In their eight years of wandering, they set up a record of endurance for the human body and soul.
James Morgan, Boston Daily Globe, Oct 7, 1927, p. 24